Caeli Benson, BFR Staff

I have a talent for recognizing faces in the crowd while remaining a face in the crowd. They stand out more than I do in my tie-dye and Hawaiian shirts or my Frida Kahlo socks. I see the flags flying over their heads; the staff marks where our paths have crossed, and the colors mark our memories. There’s Marge from Beverly Cleary, the girl who defends R-Kelly when she’s drunk. And there’s Nick from Latin American Studies, the lacrosse player who pronounces Chile like “chili.”

I relive these experiences constantly with different people all the time. I’m the only one who recognizes the other person, but it’s not like I do anything about it. I don’t say hello or wave frantically to get their attention. But with her, I did.

 

Dorothy sits with her feet crisscrossed, her fingers interlaced in her lap, and her head bowed low. Before I approach the green bench she rests on, I see how much age has withered her. The clothes she wears—her light pink plaid shoes, dark grey slacks, white dress shirt, and the black North Face jacket—hang loosely on her. Her hair is completely white, whiter than the dress shirt she wears on a daily basis. It seemed like only a few years ago that she was the woman who protested eating hamburger after the Mad Cow epidemic hit the US, who told me when I was eight years old that I’d never be a better writer than her, and who drove both of her Volvos into two different telephone poles.

I walk slowly to the bench, the dry grass and wood chips crunching under my feet. She looks up and the sun hat shifts on her head, “Well hiya, kid!”

“Hey, Grandma. How are you?”

“I’m good. Just resting.”

“That’s good. Can I sit here?” I point to the seat next to her.

“Oh, sure.” She grabs the small purse sitting next to her and sits it on her lap. It’s a new purse that she’s used the past two years. She never opens it, but she always fidgets with its zipper.

I sit next to her and we watch the families flooding out of the dining hall. I watch their every move, hoping that one of them will help spark a conversation between us. We used to talk a lot more than we do now, but it’s been six or seven years since it happened.

“What’s… that thing over there?”

I look in the direction she’s pointing. I tell her that it’s some sort of pipeline that firefighters can use in case of an emergency. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but she gives me a small shrug saying, I’ll take your word for it. She looks up at the sky, staring at the tops of the trees. I follow her gaze, trying to see what she’s seeing.

I flip my phone open to check the time. “My dad wants me to take you up the hill to take your meds. You almost ready to go?” I ask, predicting the answer she’s given me every time I’ve asked.

“You know, I think I’m going to sit here for a little while longer.” I nod, and we return to our silence.

For the next hour and a half, I ask her icebreaker questions that I already know the answer to. How has the weather been in Berkeley? Really… cold. Have you been going to the Happy Hours at Amy’s cabin? Yeah… Lars brings me some wine and crackers. Have you written anything new recently? Well, no. I haven’t had time. I’ve been… busy lately. (I call my Uncle Lars every night who responds, “Oh, we just watched TV.”)

She swatted an ant that was crawling up her leg. She let out a laugh, “That was huge!”

“I never knew ants could be that big!” I joke.

I was thinking of another question when she asked, “Have you seen my mom?”

I don’t let the sigh leave my chest. I know that I should tell her the truth, but what’s the point? I remember the lesson I learned at Miller’s Place, when the patients would ask the head nurse where their husbands and wives were. “I haven’t seen her around in a while. What does she look like? I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

“Oh, yeah okay.” She chooses her words painstakingly, fitting each into her narrative. She tells me how her father, a Portuguese butcher, left my great-grandmother when he found out she was older than him, how they sold produce on the side of the road, and how her mother would only smoke two cigarettes a day—once after breakfast and the other after dinner. The more she talks, the longer it takes for her to form her story. I let her struggle through it because I’ve never known much about her or her family. She never liked talking about her life, but she showed me the diaries and bundles of old envelopes she wrote in for most of her life.

I hardly recognized my dad walking down the hill. “Hey Mom.” He said, waving at her.

“Well, hi…” She nodded, trying to remember the name she gave him.

“Let’s go take your meds.”

“Oh, okay.” She struggled to get up from the bench, so I gave her my hand. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I whisper.

We begin the trek up the hill, stopping every five or six steps to let her catch her breath. As soon as we get to her cabin, my dad asks, “Do you know who this is?”

She looks up at me, “Well, no.”

“She’s your granddaughter.”

She looks up for the second time, “Oh!” She shines a smile up at me, and I smile down, trying to hold back my tears.

Georgia Peppe, BFR Editorial Staff

We all know the drill: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action. This is the formula for basic stories and a successful plot line, proven to be effective and hard to stray from as a writer.

And yet, in attempting a climactic moment, writers often get stuck in the mires of melodrama, falling prey to contrivances and tropes, even the dreaded cliché.

So how can one experiment with getting out of cookie cutter plot construction?

Try using bathos.

What exactly is bathos?

It’s an anti-climax device. (To see it for yourself, I recommend reading some of James Salter’s short fiction in Dusk and Other Stories and Last Night, especially the story Dusk, which was my first encounter with the literary device.)

Here’s how it works. You take your readers with you, through your world, through your character’s lives, through their thoughts, feelings, and desires; you present the conflict, the rising action, the triumphs and failures, all the elements of your story, the people, places, plot; you have all of that seeming ready to coalesce in one moment: your climax.

And then you have that moment not be there.

No climax. Instead you have a place holder that occurs in your novel/short fiction where the climax should be. But what is there now? A let down. A moment of quiet. Stagnancy.

Going out without a bang.

You whip away from your readers all the greater purpose of the story hinted at throughout the writing, all the promise of some greater resolution or conclusion. Readers hang in the air in a moment of suspension, waiting for the great reveal, but instead are sent back down, sent home with nothing to show.

This is not to be mistaken for an easy fix to a not-quite-there story. It’s not the ultimate psychological twist either. Bathos has a tone it carries about—a rather despondent one, at that—which may or may not be the perfect ending to your story.

That expectation of—or even sense of entitlement to—the moment of clarity when the meaning of a story becomes clear, and the rejection of that expectation, are what make the let-down that much more powerful.

To achieve bathos the writer must turn back to the mundane, must leave behind the satisfaction of resolution, must opt to subject their readers to unfinished business, denying the sublime for the trivial.

Ultimately, it must be purposeful that there was no greater meaning all along. No message or greater truth. We build and build only to walk away empty handed.

So why does bathos leave its readers so uneasy? How does it devastate us so entirely?

Maybe, it hits just a little too close to home.

Brittany Foley, BFR Editorial Staff

Walking back up the stairs towards her apartment door, she held her head high, determined to enter her new home feeling confident and prepared. Yet, once the door shut behind her with a bang, a noise much different than the one her door at home made, the breath rushed out of her and so did the tears. She leaned against that unfamiliar door and wished more than anything that she was home with her family, that she could have gotten into the car with her mom and left her unfurnished apartment standing vacant and far behind her.

Frustrated at her weakness, she wiped the relentless tears from her face and headed towards the bathroom. A shower would rid this unwanted homesickness from her skin and leave her feeling ready for the school year. At least, she hoped it would.

After getting undressed and stepping into a shower also tainted with a foreign feeling, her mind focused on the hot water cascading over her. Before long, she was oblivious to the sadness and unfamiliarity that awaited her beyond the shower curtain.

Unfortunately, she was also unaware of the sounds emerging in the darkness beyond the curtain. Within her apartment, a creature moved slowly, tracking the girl’s movements and searching for a place to hide. It was exalted to have new and apparently vulnerable prey to hunt. Just as the shower shut off, the creature slid into a more concealed position, its heart pounding in expectation of the hunt to come.

The girl stepped out of the shower, steam clouding around her and reached for the towel that rested on the toilet. Wrapping herself quickly in an attempt to keep the heat in, she rushed to her room, cringing at the wetness seeping down her back from her hair.

After getting dressed and feeling more herself, she walked into the kitchen to get lunch started. As she grabbed a pan from the lower cabinets, she felt as if someone was watching her. With the pan in her hand, she turned and surveyed the apartment.

The closet door was open but she couldn’t remember if it had already been that way. Instead of playing into her feelings, she decided to leave it how it was. Of course she’d be paranoid during her first time alone in the apartment. She turned back to the cabinet to grab a pot as well and hoped the act of making lunch would calm her frayed nerves.

Upon seeing the girl return to her work, the creature leaned out of its hiding spot once again and grinned, its sharp teeth gleaming in the darkness. It licked its lips in anticipation and returned to its own mental preparation of the meal it was to have later on.


It had been a long day and several times the girl felt as if she were being watched. She told herself she was only being paranoid but the feeling was persistent and each time, she could not help but want more than ever to be in her old house. She was expecting her roommates to arrive at eleven the next day but the morning seemed very far away.

Laying drowsily on her bed, she picked up the book she was halfway through. A King book, one of her favorites. However, as she read, she realized that she could not have picked a more horrible genre to read alone in a dark apartment. The talk of demons and dead bodies chilled her to the bone.

Just as she reached the section in her book when the character confronts his demon, the girl heard a front door slam. Heart racing, the thought that it might only be her roommates arriving early ran frantically through her mind. She took a deep breath and walked into hallway.

Before she could enter the living room, she heard a scraping noise coming from within the apartment. She could not stop her feet from moving towards the room, knowing that it was not her roommates but still trying to convince herself that it was. Turning the corner, she peered into the darkness, cursing herself for not getting a lamp for the living room.

Looking around the bare room, she was about to go back to bed when she noticed that the closet door was closed. She was positive that she did not close it. In fact, she knew it was open when she went into her bedroom.

Just this once she’d do what her instincts told her. She’d allow the fear to settle in and overcome it. Determined to prove herself wrong, she reached for the closet door knob.

Just before opening it, she held her breath and listened.

Light breathing. She swore she could hear breathing coming from from inside. Steeling herself, she opened the door.

Her breath flew from her chest, and she clutched at her neck instinctively, attempting to protect it from what was within.

Nothing. There was nothing in the closet. No creature ready to rip her apart and consume her. No stranger looking to assault her. Nothing.

She laughed at herself, brushing her sweaty bangs away from her forehead. It was all in her imagination. She could sleep soundly tonight knowing there was nothing in her closet.


She did not hear the vent opening above her.

Sean Dennison, BFR Editorial Staff

One day at the docks, a mermaid kissed a boy.

Here’s what happened: the boy was fishing there with his family’s pole. He was at the far end of the docks, the rich end, where fish gobbled up rich-people treats that got tossed from the more ornate vessels. He was thinking of ways humans could evolve to entirely eliminate from the diet those damn fish that he never caught, when he saw the mermaid.

She—he figured she was a she, she had breasts the boy guessed were the same size as his mother’s—broke the surface, covered in kelp but beautiful in ways the boy wasn’t used to. The tailfin, for example, was a rainbow limb. The sunlight hit the scales and waves of color undulated across her surface. The fin itself rounded out in a deep-cut crescent that looked like the fingernail moon.

“Hey,” she said.

“Uh, hey,” the boy said. Awe. When did he release the homemade pole? The one his father crafted after returning from the War, which he used to keep his family alive before the Cough got him? The one the boy now needed to feed the family? It floated away, toward the mermaid, who seized it. She came higher out of the water.

Humanoid. Her skin looked possessed by a spirit of metallurgy in gently oscillating liquid form. Her hair was wild, but the boy figured his uncles would still call her sexy. He also noticed a large starfish adorn her head.

“You know this kills right?” the mermaid said, waving the pole in front of him. Her voice: blue, mellow, but deep down, it had a colorless core that was terrifying and mysterious. It reminded him of the empty oyster shells that littered the town square during New Year’s.

“Hey, you know this kills, right?” she asked him, louder. “Kills fish?”

“No it doesn’t,” he said. “It just catches them.”

“Ah, you’re a sharky one,” she said, and smiled at him. The boy suddenly realized he might be in danger.

“I think you mean, snarky.”

“Nope, sharky.”

“Well, I don’t kill ‘em either,” the boy said. “Mom does, she cooks ‘em.”

“Ah, so that’s who the real villain is,” she said, smiling. “I didn’t even have to torture you.”

The boy gasped.

“Rather quick to sell out your mother,” she added.

“Wait, what are you going to do?” the boy asked, fearful.

“Avenge my brethren,” the mermaid said. She splashed the boy with her fin.

“Wait!” the boy said. “Don’t kill her. It’s me who kills the fish, for they drown in air when they’re trapped in the bucket that I, and I alone, throw them in. If you must avenge your brethren, strike upon me!”

The boy had recently gotten an A in drama class and hoped this was convincing form.

“I was only going to make her eat a poisonous fish, just have her get sick for a while, but death… I can work with that,” the mermaid said.

“Wait, dammit, no! You caught me off guard,” the boy said. And now he realized he wasn’t ready to die.

The mermaid extended her hand, and slapped the boy. He didn’t feel any pain; all his senses searched the mermaid’s extended hand. It hung over the water, wavering, reflecting light onto the ocean surface, dirtied with human refuse, and it made the boy think of dancing crystals.

“I have a request to make, before you end me,” said the boy.

“Please be serious,” the mermaid said. Her hand retracted and she pulled a crab out of her hair. “This is your end of life you’re using.”

The boy went for it.

“I would like a kiss.”

The mermaid shrugged, blasé as a sponge

“Anything else?”

The boy was a bit disappointed in her reaction. In his head, there was a comedic pause, then she burst out laughing, and he got his kiss. But more importantly, his charm and sass had so wooed her he also got his freedom.

“No, I guess not,” the boy said.

“Well, then,” the mermaid said.

“Yes.”

She floated toward him. He was still getting what he wanted: close proximity. He fingered Sebastian.

See, before the Cough had taken his dad, who fought in the War, the boy visited him in the hospital. His dad told long, bitter epics that made the nurses cry and doctors quietly close their office doors. He told the boy about Sebastian, his trusty switchblade that double-mouthed the necks of many an enemy. Before he died, he pulled the boy close.

“You’re a man now,” his dad said. He closed Sebastian into the boy’s fist. “Protect the family, avenge me,” Pa said.

“Dad, you’re dying from a virus.”

“It’s still a living—” he flatlined.

Now, the boy fingered Sebastian. The mermaid moved in; the boy got his kiss, then quickly stepped back, swinging out Sebastian. The blade ejected.

Mermaid blood is a lovely shade of turquoise that science tells us is due to both a magical diet and human pollution. However, it also has corrosive properties for human skin. The blood spewed on the boy, instantly devastating his throat and larynx. His final sound was a slight whistle of blood and air. The both fell: the boy collapsed on the dock, the mermaid floated near him.

The mermaid kissed the boy, but only the seagulls celebrated anything.

Sophia Zepeda, BFR Editorial Staff

The first time River Valentina Hernandez watched The Wizard of Oz, she didn’t understand Dorothy’s desperate desire to return to Kansas. The madness of a land over the rainbow had to be better than the sepia existence of the farm.  This came to mind as River walked out of the downstairs bathroom with her head held high, displaying her newly bleached hair. At the beauty supply store, she had trouble deciding between black and platinum blond, but ultimately chose bleach blond as it was the color most likely to aggravate her mother. It was distinctly not natural and would appeal the least to a new age hippy.  Upon entering the living room, her mother looked up from her seat on the couch. Mom had covered the coffee table with newspaper and was attempting to mend a chipped vase with glue and intense determination. River’s father won the vase at a boardwalk carnival game and gave it to her mother ages before he abandoned them for a massage therapist named Frieda.  The vase was shaped like a mermaid and had always been dear to her mother.  It fit right into their hippy home. At the sight of River, her mother narrowed her eyes and said, “River, again? Your natural color is so beautiful.”

This was the response River expected, feeling a mix of irritation and satisfaction. Her mother, Claire Hernandez, who had not changed her last name after the divorce, held the belief that the only way to truly live was to subscribe to a life of holistic remedies and natural substances. River, who made it her mission to become the exact opposite of her mother, wore only the latest fashions and followed the most popular style and makeup blogs on YouTube in an effort to show her mother how ridiculous it was to shun everything but tofu and hemp.

“Everyone’s doing it, Mom,” River replied, “besides you’ll only have to look at it for a week.”

“Are you sure you still want to visit your Aunt and Uncle? I don’t think you’re going to enjoy yourself as much as you think. Los Angeles isn’t anything like Santa Cruz.”

“And that’s why I’m going,” River said, walking to her room to repack the suitcase she had already repacked multiple times that week.

River had not seen her Aunt Rosa, her father’s sister, since her father left, and the only distinct memories she had of her were finely manicured French-tipped nails and highly-perfumed hugs that lasted longer than necessary. Spending the summer with her Aunt Rosa and Uncle Luis in Los Angeles would be a welcome escape from the commune-like environment in which her mother forced her to live. Claire had a bad habit of picking up stray people and allowing them to live in the house, something River had been protesting for years. In Los Angeles, River could tour the universities to which she had applied and immerse herself in a life of glamor and freedom. Her land over the rainbow was just 350 miles and a plane ride away.

River found herself unable to sleep the night before her flight. She spent the drive to the airport ignoring her mother, and the hour-long flight listening to music in order to distract herself from her nervousness. As River walked down the stairs to the airport baggage claim, she saw her Aunt and Uncle standing side-by-side waving at her.

Mija!” her Aunt exclaimed, “It’s been too long since we’ve seen you.” Her Aunt commenced to hug her for a period approaching a full minute, smothering River against her bosom while rocking her from side to side. Her Uncle, who stood off to the side, briefly wrapped one arm around her, told her she had grown into a beautiful young woman, and then disengaged.

They did not live in Los Angeles proper as River had thought.  In the long car ride to their house in a suburban town called Whittier—which was most famous for housing a college of the same name—her Uncle Luis explained the rules of the house. These included no staying up past 10 PM, church on Sunday morning, dinner at 6:30 PM everyday with no exceptions, and no back-talking any adult visitors.  River, who had never lived in a house with such strict rules, thought them ridiculous, but promised she would follow them to the best of her abilities.

Their house was a beige cookie-cutter two-story affair with a typical walkway leading to the front door. It blended in with all the other houses in the neighborhood and was nothing like her mother’s forest green old Victorian. River’s Uncle walked her to the beige room in which she would be staying; it was spartanly furnished with only a bed, desk, and a small dresser. Then, he told her to put her things away and get ready for dinner. In the room, River began to unpack and think about her plans for the month she would be there. First, she would go to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the one that had the hand and footprints of all the stars imprinted in concrete. Then, she would walk down Rodeo Drive, exploring all the shops that sold items she couldn’t afford yet, wearing her most expensive clothes and movie-star sun glasses in an effort to blend in. She also had plans to sunbathe on Venice Beach and take a picture next to the Hollywood sign, all with the sole intention of making her friends jealous.

However, within two weeks, River concluded that she would not be seeing any of the tourist sites she planned on visiting. The only places she toured were a local church and the University of California in Los Angeles. Her Aunt planned to take her to the University of Southern California the following Saturday. When River asked if they could at least drive down Hollywood Boulevard at some point, her Aunt replied that they didn’t have time for that sort of thing but perhaps they could squeeze it in later in the week.

Living with her Aunt and Uncle proved to be nothing like she expected. Her Aunt, who took over two hours to get ready each morning, seemed to naturally accept that hair, clothes, and makeup were meant to consume vast chunks of one’s day (and everyone’s else’s for that matter) while her Uncle, who never smiled, watched hours of Fox News every night after dinner, as religiously as they attended Sunday mass. When River mentioned that her best friend was gay, they gave her a two-hour lecture on hating the sin but not the sinner and not associating oneself with such unscrupulous people. This was not the only lecture River received. On the Monday of her third week living there, her Aunt told her to change her shirt because it was indecent to have her bra straps showing. On Tuesday, they sat her down and asked why she hadn’t brushed her hair, as it was already lunchtime. On Thursday, her Uncle took forty-five minutes to explain why she couldn’t wear slippers outside the house to get the mail because someone might see her, and what would they think of them as a family? By Friday, River officially had had enough and she began to count down the days until her return home.

Sunday, before church, Aunt Rosa asked River to go in the garage and help her retrieve a vase from a topmost shelf. Aunt Rosa explained that Great Aunt Anita was going to be visiting after church, and she had bought Aunt Rosa the vase for Christmas last year. It needed to be put on the side table in the foyer before Aunt Anita arrived.

“I hate it,” Aunt Rosa said, “It doesn’t match the house. Who buys someone a vase that doesn’t match the house?”

“Then why are you displaying it?” asked River.

Aunt Rosa looked at River in disbelief, “Because she needs to think I like it. What will she think of me if she knows it is hidden away in the garage?”

River stood on a stool and reached for the vase and as she turned to give it to her Aunt, the vase fell from River’s grasp and crashed to the floor. Aunt Rosa screamed and dropped to her knees, attempting to pick up the pieces.

“What have you done?” Aunt Rosa yelled, “You’re so careless!”

“I’m so sorry,” River said, “but at least you don’t have to display it anymore.”

“No!” yelled Aunt Rosa, “We have to go to the mall to replace it. I think she got it at Macy’s.”

“That’s ridiculous!” River said, “It was an accident, she’ll understand.”

“No, we need to go now. I’ll tell Anita we couldn’t make it to church because you’re sick,” Aunt Rosa said, as she pulled River to the front door.

As River sat in the car staring out the window at the passing scenery, she contemplated her current situation. Instead of driving down Rodeo Drive, here she sat in the passenger seat of her Aunt’s Jeep Cherokee on the way to the mall to watch her Aunt buy a vase she didn’t even want. It didn’t make any sense to River why her Aunt cared so much about what another person thought. The entire trip wasn’t necessary; Aunt Anita probably wouldn’t even remember the vase.

At the mall, Aunt Rosa was pleased to discover that the vase was marked down for clearance in Macy’s Home Decor department for only $200, apparently $100 less than what Great Aunt Anita paid. The vase stood 15 inches tall with zebras and arrows garishly accented in 24K gold, all of which was set on a black Italian glass surface. In the dark of the garage River had not fully seen the vase. Standing in Macy’s, looking at the ugly prancing zebra’s, River contemplated destroying this one too. All she had to do was lean over the table and lightly brush the vase with her hand and it would crash to the floor.

“Aunt Rosa, you can’t buy this,” River pleaded. “It’s even more hideous in broad daylight. Why are you going to spend money on something you don’t even like?”

Aunt Rosa clucked her tongue at River, “Don’t you care what Great Aunt Anita thinks of you?” Then she exhaled a large breath and headed to the cash register.

“No I don’t!” River said as she grabbed her Aunt, “You’re being stupid. Nobody cares!”

“I care and you should too,” Aunt Rose huffed, “This entire week you’ve done nothing but embarrass me and your uncle and I’m ashamed at your behavior.”

A heavy weight descended into the pit of River’s stomach as she watched her Aunt walk to the register. Slowly, River followed her.

After paying for the vase, Aunt Rosa walked to the car, clutching the vase to her chest as if it were an ailing infant.

“When we get home,” Aunt Rosa told River, “I want you to sit down and not touch anything until Aunt Anita arrives. You’ve done enough damage.”

River watched television until she heard the doorbell ring. Her Aunt opened the door for Great Aunt Anita who immediately looked at the foyer table.

“Ah, it’s beautiful. I knew you would love it,” Aunt Anita said.

“Of course!” Rosa replied as she walked with Anita to the couch, “It’s perfect.”

“Unbelievable,” River mumbled.

Great Aunt Anita raked River with her hawk-like gaze, turned toward Aunt Rosa and said, “Charming,” before sitting herself carefully on the couch.

River watched as the two women began to discuss, with great disapproval, the strapless dress that cousin Benita Gonzalez’s daughter, Lupe, had worn to church that morning. River retreated to her room, took out her cellphone and called her mother who picked up on the first ring.

“River, honey, how’s everything going?” Her mother asked.

“I’m ready to come home.”

“Already? You sure?”

There were several seconds of silence. “Yes,” River finally replied, “Los Angeles is great, and I’ve visited both universities, but there’s just no point to staying any longer. Mom, I really want to come home”

“Okay, I’ll book your flight right away, honey,” Claire responded, “See you in a couple of days.”

“Thanks mom,” River hung up and hastily packed a day bag. Then, she looked up the directions to downtown Los Angeles on her cell phone, jotted down a few notes, grabbed a jacket and her bag, and headed for the front door.  As River passed Aunt Rosa and Great Aunt Anita, who were still seated on the sofa but now complaining about another family member, she paused and executed an old fashioned curtsy.

“Mother trusts me, I trust me, and I trust the bus and light rail system of your fine metropolis.”

Aunt Rosa managed a “What?” while Great Aunt Anita simply looked confused.

River continued, “I appreciate everything you have done for me. I won’t be back until after dinner. I’ll give your regards to Hollywood.”

With that she strode out the door. She expected to catch hell when she got back. She thought she had better call her Mom soon and explain to her what she had just done. Later she might even check in with Aunt Rosa. But at that moment, she had a bus to catch and a city to explore. In a few days she’d be back at her mother’s home. And for the first time in years that idea was okay with her. Her mother’s home wasn’t here and it wasn’t forever. She shook her full head of bleached blond hair in the bright Southern California sunlight and laughed a loud and welcoming laugh at whatever lay ahead.

Ben Rowen, BFR Managing Editor

Like most college students—and like all who wear lens-less glasses—I entered freshmen year entirely assured I was uniquely well-read. My first year taught me three important things (in addition to imparting on me the wisdom that lens-less glasses picked me out as uniquely unlikeable):

First, my taste in books was not unique (however at the fringe the Beats wished they were, their stuff certainly became lame-stream).

Second, I was not well-read.

Third, point #2 did not matter because I could pretend to be.

Discovery of point #3 opened up the floodgates for my mind’s growth—the entire literary canon became my oyster. I did my best Pacman impression, consuming bullet-points of book plots from novels I could never dream of reading. A brave new world full of fresh ideas unfolded before me.

I learned some books are not written in English. I learned what resides in foreign–language idiom is entirely inaccessible to any English translation. And I learned saying ‘to translate is to betray’ was amongst the safest, best ways to prove I was a Deep Thinker, in lieu (trying to prove I can read French!) of actually being one.

And now, like many college students, I enter senior year entirely assured that I am uniquely well-read when it comes to Wikipedia synopses of famous books. Or in other words, that I am functionally well-read.

Although I’m desperate to feel unique, the truth is that most people lie about reading books all the time. According to The Telegraph, 62% of people pretend to have read classics to appear smarter.

Next-level pretend readers are even didactic about their views of these books they have not read. They assure you calling so-and-so a “classic” is a misnomer that denigrates the veritable distinction itself. (A book about psychology that I didn’t read estimates this special group makes up 85% of all English majors.)

Within the collegiate context, it’s no surprise people lie about reading things. College practically teaches doing so. Social science classes, in particular, assign too much material to possibly get through. The assignments end up being about how to best to pretend to have done all the reading, not actually doing it.

On a wider scale, people lie about reading books because it makes them seem smarter. This is intuitive, but certainly does not holistically explain why people fake reading resumes.

To demonstrate the explanatory-insufficiency of such a reason, I ask you to try enumerate the books someone you know has read. If you can, I ask you to think about someone who you think is smarter for having read a certain book.

Even if you can complete task one, I bet you can’t task two. This is because none of us is keeping tabs on others’ reading lists, outside of those of us in book clubs (although, even those people find far more interesting things about which to gossip).

And so, ultimately, outside of the specific conversations about a given book in which we are immediately engaged, seeming to have read something won’t get us far. People are not keeping track.

In fact, even within those specific conversations, lying probably won’t get you far. Saying you’ve read something is a remarkably boring soundbite. We all understand this, at some level.

So, more than simply trying to appear smart, we say we have read something we have not because doing so bestows us some comfort. Each successful faking convinces us that we have acquired enough intellectual clout to pass as such a reader.

The lying can even be aspirational. Someone affirming our status as an appropriate reader of a book convinces us that, perhaps, we should read that book. At the very least, when we lie about reading something, we may feel compelled to read a bit of it to be able to support that lie.

And yet, whatever benefits lying about reading may afford, we all realize it’s not something we should do, and we do so guiltily.

The problem with faking, of course, is not that you’ll get caught. You won’t. Any fool with a smartphone can covertly google things mid-conversation. Anyone will believe said fool because ultimately no one else cares; revelation of reading habits means little—we aren’t in second grade anymore. Your best friend is not going to talk about reading a “great book,” which he or she has actually made up on the spot. Your friend won’t then ask you if you have read it. You’ll never have to say “yes”; you’ll never have to eat lunch in the bathroom stall that day.

Simply put, if you fake reading a book, you’ll likely escape unscathed.

Rather, faking is bad, aside from its pretension, because it prevents one from truly learning. SparkNotes and Wikipedia are good ways to submerge oneself in seemingly unapproachable reading material, but they give a one-dimensional reading. Fluency in plot structure and vague, abstracted themes, as we all know, is not equivalent to mastery of a book.

Further, if one could simply own up to having not read something, one’s acquaintances would feel the need to explain the reason behind name-dropping a work, when they do. Conversations would not proceed vapidly, full of unexplicated referents.

Faking, in contrast, stops others from sharing their knowledge, because it does not give them a chance to. Others assume the faker knows everything already, so there’s no point in sharing.

As such, everyone faced with faking having read a book confronts one question: would you rather learn, or pretend to have?

In light of many people choosing the latter, here’s an easy rubric for determining what books someone has read:

  • How do you know someone has read Huck Finn? They went to a high school in the U.S.
  • How do you know someone has read War and Peace? They tell you they have (i.e. they namedrop like it’s hot).
  • How do you know someone has not read Infinite Jest? They tell you they have.

With this rubric in mind, and potential fakes exposed, I urge anyone considering pretending to reconsider.

Rather than posing as knowledgeable, everyone should just follow Hal’s lead in Infinite Jest, and should enter a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”

Sophia Zepeda, BFR Editorial Staff

    When summer with her hot sun does shine,

A band who have Fallen to drugs and wine,

Five addicts go seek a helping hand

To rid them of their shameful brand.

Of America they to Rancho Mirage go,

For the salvation that rehab does bestow.

The Betty Ford Clinic, our destination,

A simple van driver is my vocation.

At this bus stop I do collect these strays,

Some five poor souls I find this day,

Forced to come with me or face police custody,

A pilgrimage we shall take to find sobriety.

I task myself to explain their character

So that you may more easily follow this adventure.

First among the group is a soldier brave

Who fought for freedom he hoped to save

In far off lands he showed his merit,

From the Gulf to Afghanistan he bore it,

He never faltered in the face of fear,

Many tours he has served, the cost was dear.

In Iraq he saved the lives of many,

His sacrifices were bold and plenty

A patriotic soul, he is kind and true,

A worthy son of red, white, and blue.

There was also a man most foul and fat

Who sold used cars with words that spat

Falsehood, fibs, and exaggeration,

Selling cars not fit to be driven.

A most disgusting man, food always in his beard,

He lecherously looked at any woman who came near.

Advantage he would take if he thought that he could,

Promoting his wares though they were no good.

In moral company there traveled a man

Who trustworthy seemed, sought profit from God.

A televangelist, he preached to the many

Promises of salvation for only pennies.

Great rhetoric he gave, always wearing a smile,

With their shame of sin he does beguile.

He welcomes all from Sacramento to Des Moines,

He takes checks, money orders, cards, and bit coin.

On this journey does travel a wealthy doctor,

A plastic surgeon, beauty for money he does offer.

Facelifts, tummy tucks, implants aplenty

For an exorbitant price he’ll work on any.

He lives a life modest, not spending a cent

On hoarding wealth his soul is bent.

To spend his wealth would be a terrible thing,

To his tower of gold he will surely cling.

Last of our fellowship is a woman, most vivacious and broad,

Five husbands she widowed: Dick, John, Peter, Jimmy, and Rod.

Each richer than the one last wed,

Each one struggled to match her in bed.

Her virtues are extolled throughout the land,

Her appetites mighty, her repute is grand.

She is draped in designer clothes from head to feet,

Her taste in fine jewelry cannot be beat.

She laughs easily and freely at any amusement,

And of out the group she is the most joyous and most pleasant.

On our journey to the clinic, to pass the time

I requested a story of their drama or crime

The best tale will win its author a momentary reprieve

On the green outside the walls before I take my leave.

To my terms they agree and the soldier begins to speak

As the van begins to role with a jostle and a creak.

Alagia Cirolia, BFR Editorial Staff

College writers are desperate creatures, yearning for attention and audience. Hungry for praise, popularity, and even infamy, we all seek that fix—the sweet glory of publication—to validate those hours upon days upon weeks spent with head bent in humble supplication to whatever god may grace us from within the void of the blank, white page. The arduous journey from intangible thought to published work is wrought with rejection, and yet we must march on. Often, much of this rejection comes from publications that are merely mirages, beautiful traps designed to depress us with their authorial exclusivity. I say, enough of those nights spent checking my email to see if maybe, just maybe, I might be the next up-and-coming college writer published by The New Yorker. Let us march down different roads, all leading to publication.

While it’s still an excellent idea to submit work to traditionally renowned publications like The New Yorker or big names like Huff Post, consider expanding your pool of places to submit, as well as your body of work. I encourage you, my dear peers, to do a little dabbling. Write a short story, write a poem, write a heart-warming personal essay or comedically spiteful political commentary. Write more, and submit more. Cast more lines, follow more paths, and grow. And in the great empathy we all share on this NewYorkerforsaken trek across the hilly terrain of making a name for oneself, I share with you some strange (and familiar) places to take detours as a writer.

  1. Clickbait

As I’m sure you’re aware of, since you’re reading this, clickbait articles are all the rage on social media. Ranging from quippy and provocative to mind-numbingly cute, a good clickbait piece is one of the best ways to get your name on a popular piece,  and is particularly accessible to freelance writers. Although I say “clickbait,” many of these articles are admirably well-versed in pop-culture and artfully crafted with different styles of humor. In an age where cultivating an online personality is an art, writing successful is indeed an envied skill. Consider submitting to places such as Buzzfeed Community, Vice, College Humor, and Cracked. Now, these are pretty big names because, well, social media is everywhere. But they’re an interesting and ultimately valuable exercise in drawing from experience, testing your originality, and becoming internet famous. See: this article on eating steak with G-Unit, written by a boy who goes to Columbia. That could be you, man.

  1. Essays and Nonfiction

As preached in my school’s required 4th grade reading of Dear Mr. Henshaw, though fiction is a wonderful outlet for imagination and fantasy, it is just as important to write what you know. Drawing from experience is always a wonderful tactic, and writing personal essays and nonfiction pieces are an excellent way to hone that skill. Many holistic literary magazines include a non-fiction category, like the famed Emerson publication Ploughshares, which holds an emerging writer’s contest in poetry, prose, and nonfiction every year. Rookie is another site–an online zine by and for young women and teens–that accepts almost all forms of media pitches and encourages personal, intimate pieces. And finally, I suggest the Modern Love College Essay Contest held annually by the New York Times. This contest is begging for your torrid sophomore-year-club-retreat-turned-aching-3-year-sexual-engagement tale, and speaks directly to the principle of turning your personal experiences into art.

*Another mode of nonfiction to consider is science journalism; the scientific community desperately needs poetic writers like you to communicate its ideas!

  1. Non-traditional, Non-college Based Magazines

As a college student, it’s pretty standard to submit work to college publications. However, there are many excellent magazines to publish with that aren’t college affiliated and will add some variation to your published portfolio. Many of theses magazines also deviate from the cut and dry literary magazines produced by most colleges. For example, Brevity specializes in flash fiction that’s only 750 words or less. Or, you could follow in the footsteps of Shel Silverstein and become a Playboy contributor through this college fiction contest. Beyond your local college publication, there are a million amazing independent ones like Word Riot and Drunkenboat that also accept everything from poetry to flash fiction to small press literary reviews.

***

So come on my wonderfully ambitious peers, branch out a little. Give The New Yorker the bird and use other publications, other genres of writing, as training wings. Your work is worth more than a two year wait for a response from the Big Guy. Get your name out there and support yourself through social media, support small press, support the transformation of experience into expression, and don’t wait around for an answer from an intangible entity—get published.

Leonardo Valdez Ordoñez, BFR Staff

“Mom. I’m okay. Really,” I swung my backpack over my shoulder and closed the car door. The cold, morning mist clung to my pale skin. I could see my breath come out of my mouth. My mother’s face looked sad and tired through the car window.

“Okay, honey. Remember, when you come home, I’m still going to be at work. Either Sarah or Matt will be home,” she said. My older brother and sister both went to the community college and they had the day off. It wasn’t fair that I had to come to school.

“Fine. Bye, Mom. Love you,” I waved at her through the window and walked through the dew covered grass and through the doors to my school. The halls buzzed with the excitement of the last day of school before Christmas break. I arrived at my locker just as the bell rang. I stuffed my jacket in and took out my books for first period. The kids in the hall were beginning to disperse as they rushed to class, not wanting to be late. I ran down the hall and straight into my ninth grade Geometry class. Everyone stared as I walked in, and as soon as they saw it was me, they continued their conversations. Nobody gave me a second look.

The day went by slow. By the time it was lunch, I felt sick. I felt like throwing up and my head hurt. Deciding to ignore it, hoping it would go away, I ate my lunch in the library alone. I took out my phone and checked my email. They library was warm and cozy. The chair I sat in was hard, and the table was scratched and scuffed from years of being used. Being surrounded by shelves and shelves of books was comforting. I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t mind. Ever since we moved to Washington from Florida, I had been miserable. We lived in a suburban home, and the neighborhood was supposed to be really nice, but in reality, it was dirty.

As I sat in History, I felt sicker than I had in the morning. I couldn’t pay attention to anything the teacher was saying, no matter how hard I tried. I stared out of the window, daydreaming, when the loudspeaker buzzed with static.

“Gabriel Thomas. Please report the main office at once. Gabriel Thomas. Report to the main office at once.” The entire class turned to look at me. I stood up, collected my things, and the teacher ushered me out. I ran to the office. My head hurt worse than before. I opened the door and walked in. There, talking to the principal stood two policemen. My father sat in a chair and my sister in another. My dad stared at the floor, and my sister was sobbing into his shoulder. As soon as my father saw me, he stood up and embraced me in a tight hug.

“Dad, what’s going on? What happened?” I asked. He let go of me and looked into my eyes.

“Gabe. Please sit down.” I took a seat next to my sister. She wouldn’t look at me. The policemen and the principal came over. One of the policeman knelt down next to me.

“I’m sorry, Gabriel,” he said. He looked as if he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and he smelled like coffee.

“What happened? Please, someone tell me!” I was frustrated.

“I’m so sorry. Your mother,” His voice broke. He coughed and tried again. I looked at my dad, his eyes were welled with tears, and he looked like he was trying not to cry.

“Your mother has died. I am so sorry,” The policeman stood up and slowly backed away. What had he just said? My heart raced, and I felt dizzy. This couldn’t be. But then, the realization struck. They all looked serious. They weren’t kidding. I didn’t notice until after I had begun to cry. I sobbed and hiccupped as my sister held me. Slowly, I slid down my seat and onto the floor.

“Gabriel, kid. I know. I know,” My father lifted me up and held me. I was gradually blacking out. The last words I heard were: “We don’t know. All we found was the body, but there was something. A slip of paper.”

******

My mother died in a river. They found her body. The morning they found her, it was cold and dreary. No wonder I had felt sick the moment I left my mom. I felt sick the moment she left me. The moment she left the world. Nobody knows what happened. The investigators thought it might have been suicide. I didn’t know what to think myself.

When they found her, a piece of paper was wedged under her tongue. When they found it, they immediately contacted my family to see if we knew what it meant. The words written on the paper in my mother’s small scrawl were barely legible, but I could tell what it said. It read:

“The beginning of the end.”

Still, three years later, I haven’t totally found out what she meant by that. I have formed bits and pieces of what I think it could mean. When I put them together, they don’t make sense. But, I will not stop until I figure out what the last thoughts of my mother were, before her last breath. I will not cease. I will only stop at the end of the end.

Georgia Peppe, BFR Editorial Staff

Sci-Fi.

An abbreviation that has the power to invoke utter joy or disgust given the beholder of the topic.

I personally used to be one of the blind that discredited this genre as gimmicky and meritless. Though I appreciated the concepts and imagination, I never considered anything even faintly classified as science fiction to be “literary” or of “literary merit.”

That was until my mother put Pastoralia, a collection of short stories by George Saunders, in my lap. Tenth of December soon followed.

These anthologies had no boisterous, graphic design cover art or obsequious font, so I doubted that this was in fact science fiction.

What I like specifically about Saunders-esque science fiction is its subtlety; how the science fiction aspect of his writing does not come from blatant exhibitions of, or references to, subjects preordained as science-y.

His literary trick is best described as continuous discontinuities. For Saunders this manifests in some of his short stories in an extremely unnerving manner.

The difference is this:

In most science fiction, the reader is presented a fictional world where everything is different. It is garnished with flying cars, dinosaurs, etc. There are innumerable rules governing the world and not all of them are cohesive when put in place next to each other. How this world exactly works gets confusing because the ambiguity surrounding what is different about this world is not consistent. Too many extrapolations, additions, twists, and throw away, last minute explanations that shoddily fill in gaping plot holes. In other words what is different about the world from ours, the discontinuity, is not continuous.

In Saunders’ worlds, it is typically difficult to first perceive the slightest difference between his literary world and our own. He chooses and places perversions of the expected in a setting the reader is all too familiar and comfortable with: a world without flying cars or dinosaurs, a world that is otherwise their own. Except for the twist.

I personally prefer Saunders’ more subtle approach, but, subtlety aside, even mainstream action-centric science fiction could stand to observe his skill.

A Saunders’ twist is the discontinuity, and this discontinuity is continuously integrated into the world it inhabits, creating a new world for this fiction to take place in. It is an eerie alteration of what we know so well. Though it is not as outrageous a presentation as mainstream science fiction, it leaves much more room for metaphors and allegories, but most of all, a real fear of that world which is only a slight deviation away from our own.

Continuity is crucial to world building. But of course we all knew that.

What is even more crucial is the continuity of a discontinuity. Being meticulous about your representation and presentation of an aspect of your world that defines it and distinguishes it from “reality.”

You, as a writer, want this discontinuity so well integrated that your reader is taken aback when it surfaces, when they finish your story and are left with a discomfort,  an eeriness regarding how clear and permeating that world felt.